Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac?

Category: Bible 149 1

We have all heard stories about parents who have murdered their children and gone on to defend their actions by claiming that God told them to do so. Whenever we hear these stories, we naturally shake our heads and call the person a psycho. However, many skeptics will point out that the Bible has its own parent who was willing to sacrifice his child because God told him to do so. This parent was Abraham, the father of the Jewish nation. A good question should be asked: Why did God command Abraham to sacrifice Isaac? 

This story appears in Genesis 22. Here is the passage:

After these things God tested Abraham. He said to him, “Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” He said, “[Please] take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you.” So Abraham rose early in the morning, saddled his donkey, and took two of his young men with him, and his son Isaac; he cut the wood for the burnt offering, and set out and went to the place in the distance that God had shown him. On the third day Abraham looked up and saw the place far away. Then Abraham said to his young men, “Stay here with the donkey; the boy and I will go over there; we will worship, and then we will come back to you.” Abraham took the wood of the burnt offering and laid it on his son Isaac, and he himself carried the fire and the knife. So the two of them walked on together. Isaac said to his father Abraham, “Father!” And he said, “Here I am, my son.” He said, “The fire and the wood are here, but where is the lamb for a burnt offering?” Abraham said, “God himself will provide the lamb for a burnt offering, my son.” So the two of them walked on together.

When they came to the place that God had shown him, Abraham built an altar there and laid the wood in order. He bound his son Isaac, and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. 10 Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to kill his son. 11 But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven, and said, “Abraham, Abraham!” And he said, “Here I am.” 12 He said, “Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him; for now I know that you fear God, since you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.” 13 And Abraham looked up and saw a ram, caught in a thicket by its horns. Abraham went and took the ram and offered it up as a burnt offering instead of his son. 14 So Abraham called that place “The Lord will provide”; as it is said to this day, “On the mount of the Lord it shall be provided.”

Was God evil for doing this? God condemns child sacrifice in other parts of the Bible, yet he asks for it here. Does this mean that God can bend his own rules and do what he wants? Was Abraham no different than the parents we hear about today who say that God told them to kill their children? In this article, we will take a look at these questions and try to understand what is going on in this passage.

Context, context, context

In order to know the true meaning of any part of the Bible, we must attempt to understand it in its original context. The book of Genesis was written by Moses along with the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. These five books are called the Pentateuch. They give a history of God and his relationship with mankind from the creation of the world down to the death of Moses.

The Pentateuch is held together by the theme of faith, and the two major characters in this part of Scripture are Abraham and Moses. In Genesis 12:2-3 God gives Abraham a promise: “I will make you into a great nation and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you I will curse; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This promise would eventually be fulfilled through Isaac. From Isaac came Jacob, who is renamed Israel, Moses, King David, the Prophets, and eventually Jesus and his disciples. Jesus is the blessing that will go out to the whole world. As early as Genesis 12 God is speaking about the coming of Christ and what he will do on the cross. Remember this as we examine Genesis 22 and the near-sacrifice of Isaac.

The Pentateuch shows Abraham to be the positive example of faith in God; while the negative example is shown to be Moses (many people may be shocked to discover this). Abraham had faith in God before the Old Testament Law was given to Moses at Mount Sinai.[1] “Despite his wavering, he [Abraham] trusted God’s promise, and so he was declared righteous by God (Gen. 15:6). By contrast, Moses actually failed in his faith – even though he lived under the law given at Sinai. Yes, he played a crucial role in Israel’s history, but we see a critical failure of faith in Moses.”[2]

It is interesting that whenever the words “have faith/believe” are mentioned in the Bible before the giving of the law in Exodus 20, it is used in a positive way. However, these same words are used in a negative sense after the law is given. Scholar Paul Copan notes “The Pentateuch is in large part a contrast between Abraham and Moses.”[3] He continues, “It’s significant that Abraham trusted God – and was declared righteous – before the law of Moses came…The point is to show how Abraham essentially kept the law and pleased God because he lived by faith (Gen. 15:6).”[4]

On the other hand, Moses lived after the giving of the law. Even though he knew what God’s law was, he failed in his faith. This, in effect, kept Moses from entering the Promised Land. “He is the negative contrast of Abraham…The Hebrew text makes clear that both Moses and Aaron displayed unbelief in their exasperation. They weren’t trusting in God” (Numbers 20; Psalm 106:32-33).[5]

The Bible uses the picture of Abraham as a picture of faith and trust in God without the law. Abraham serves as an example of how people throughout the ages are to live. Moses turns out to be a negative example of someone who is living under the law. This should be a warning to anyone who is legalistic – believing that we are right in God’s eyes because we keep the law and are “good people.” The contrast between Abraham and Moses shows us that having the law and keeping it down to the letter are inadequate for being right with God. Instead, we are to approach God trustingly, “depending on his grace and sufficiency rather than putting confidence in our own sufficiency.”[6]

The Text of Genesis 22

Understanding the context of the Pentateuch helps us to properly learn what is going on when God tells Abraham to sacrifice Isaac. There are six important things to point out in Genesis 22.

1)      In Genesis 12:1, God tells Abraham to “go” (literally “going-go” in the Hebrew) “to the land which I will show you.” This is linked to the promise that God gives Abraham in verses 2-3 that we talked about above. In Genesis 22, God commands Abraham to “go” (once again “going-go”) followed by “one of the mountains of which I will show you” (notice how both 12:1 and 22:2 are similar). “Abraham couldn’t have missed the connection being made. Bells are going off in Abraham’s mind. God is clearly reminding him of his promise of blessing in Genesis 12 even while he’s commanded to do what seems to be utterly opposed to that promise.”[7] Abraham was asked in Genesis 12 to give up his past (his homeland) for God’s promise of the future. In Genesis 22, he is being told to give up the future in the promise.

2)      22:1 tells us up front that this is a test. God does not intend for Abraham to actually sacrifice Isaac.

3)      This seemingly horrible command is cushioned by something unusual – “please take your son” – or as one scholar has translated it, “Take, I beg of you, your only son.”[8] (“Please” is often left out of most English translations although the Hebrew word for it is in the text). This command of God’s as a plea is very rare. God understands how hard this will be for Abraham.

4)      God reminds Abraham of “your son, your only son, whom you love, Isaac.” God is acknowledging that the promise given to Abraham in Genesis 12 cannot be fulfilled without Isaac.

5)      God is sending Abraham to a mountain in the region of Moriah. This word is derived from the Hebrew word ra’ah which means “provide, see, show.” Abraham was aware of God providing for Hagar and Ishmael. In Genesis 16:13 Hagar says, “You are a God who sees” (using the Hebrew ra’ah). The word Moriah (“provision”) gives us a hint that salvation and deliverance is coming.[9] Gordon Wenham says, “Salvation is thus promised in the very decree that sounds like annihilation.”[10]

6)      In verse 5 Abraham tells his servants to stay behind while he and Isaac go to the mountain. Abraham tells them, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Abraham knew that God would not break his promises. “It is impossible for God to lie” (Hebrews 6:18) and God told Abraham that he would be the father of a great nation and that his descendants would bless the whole world. In Genesis 15, Abraham sacrificed some animals and then cut them in half. In verse 17, God passed through them. This gesture of “cutting” a covenant is a self-curse. God is essentially saying that “May I be like these animals if I do not fulfill my promises.”[11] God is willing to curse himself if the promise through Isaac will not be fulfilled.[12]

Because of the divine promises and repeated assurances that Isaac was the child of promise, Abraham knew that Isaac would be returning home with him alive. Hebrews 11:19 says that Abraham reasoned that God would raise Isaac from the dead.

Jesus and Isaac

The Near-Sacrifice of Isaac points to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.
The Near-Sacrifice of Isaac points to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ.

The story of Abraham and Isaac (Abraham’s “one and only son”) looks forward to God and “his one and only son” Jesus in that Jesus lays down his life and rises from the grave. Jesus is the “second Isaac” in this context.

Copan says it well: “Abraham’s unquestioning yet difficult obedience to the covenant [of] God not only helped shape and confirm Israel’s identity in Abraham but also provided a context for understanding God’s immense self-giving love in the gift of his Son…Harking back to Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, Paul uses this story to remind believers of God’s supreme dedication to them: ‘He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him over for us all, how will He not also with Him freely give us all things?’ (Rom. 8:32). Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac anticipated God’s self-sacrifice in Christ…The kind of demand God made of Abraham was one the Triune God was willing to carry out himself.”[13]

It is interesting to note that 2 Chronicles 3:1 tells us that Mount Moriah, where Abraham took Isaac to sacrifice, is in fact, the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. It is on the Temple Mount where Jews sacrificed animals for their sins, and it is in Jerusalem where Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the world.[14]

Conclusion

When we understand Genesis 22 in its historical context, it is clear that God never intended to have Isaac sacrificed. Abraham also knew that somehow God would come through as faithful even if this meant that Isaac would die and be resurrected. The whole point of God testing Abraham was to show future generations how it is through faith (and not the law/good works) that we are righteous, and how God would be willing to sacrifice his own Son. This has lead one theologian to say concerning God’s love: “God loves us more than he loves himself.”[15]

Parents need not worry that God is going to test them the way he did Abraham. God will not tell anyone to sacrifice their children for any reason. The case with Abraham was unique and was only for that particular moment in history.

What do you think? What was your understanding of Genesis 22? Did this article change or enforce your belief? Leave a comment below and visit us on Facebook.


[1] John H. Sailhamer. “The Mosaic Law and the Theology of the Pentateuch.” Westminster Theological Journal 53 (1991): 260-261. Available online at http://faculty.gordon.edu/hu/bi/ted_hildebrandt/otesources/04-numbers/text/articles/sailhamer-law-numbers-wtj.htm. This article is an excellent overview of the topic of faith between Abraham and Moses.

[2] Paul Copan. Is God a Moral Monster (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011). Pgs. 43-44.

[3] Copan, 44.

[4] Ibid. Italics in original.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid., 45.

[7] Ibid.

[8] James Crenshaw. Whirlpool of Torment, Pg. 14. Quoted in Copan, 47.

[9] Copan, 48. Also see H.C. Leupold. Exposition of Genesis Volume II (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1942). Pgs. 620, 626.

[10] Gordon Wenham. Genesis 16-50. Word Bible Commentary Volume 2 (Dallas: Word Books, 1994). Pg. 105.

[11] Copan, 48-49.

[12] See Leupold, 617, 625. Henry M. Morris. The Genesis Record (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1976). Pg. 378, 381 for more.

[13] Copan, 52.

[14] See Leupold, 617; Morris 374-375, 380, 382 for more.

[15] Thomas Torrance. The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being, Three Persons. Pg. 244. Quoted in Copan, 52.

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